September 24, 2022

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – A Florida man who fled the U.S. and was eventually arrested in Croatia has pleaded guilty to stealing more than $7.2 million in COVID-19 aid.

Don V. Cisternino, 46, of Chuluota, pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Orlando to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and unlawful monetary transaction, according to court documents. His hearing is scheduled for Jan. 5, where he could face up to 32 years in federal prison. As part of a deal with prosecutors, Cisternino has already agreed to forfeit the money from the fraud, as well as any property related to the crimes.

According to the plea agreement, Cisternino fraudulently secured more than $7.2 million in emergency funds through a Paycheck Protection Program loan in May 2020. Cisternino’s PPP loan application falsely claimed that his business, MagnifiCo, had 441 employees and monthly expenses pays more than 2019 $2.8 million. The company actually had no employees except for Cisternin. Along with his loan application, Cisternino submitted false W-2s, many of which listed the names and Social Security numbers of real people who did not authorize him to use their identities. After receiving the money, Cisternino spent it on a Lincoln Navigator, a Maserati, a Mercedes-Benz and a 12,579-square-foot (1,168 square meter) home in Seminole County, Florida.

Cisternino fled to Switzerland after learning in January 2021 that he was under investigation for fraud, officials said. He was arrested in April of that year on the basis of an Interpol red notice while trying to enter Croatia from Slovenia via Italy. He was later extradited to the United States.

The Paycheck Protection Program includes billions of dollars in forgivable small business loans for Americans struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The money must be used to pay employees, mortgage interest, rent and utilities. It’s part of the coronavirus relief package that became federal law in 2020.


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